Posted by: mattcolvin | April 9, 2011

David Daube Clears Up the Book of Ruth

The following is reposted from my now-defunct Upsaid blog for a reader who wanted to find the information I had posted there about David Daube’s utterly revolutionary and persuasive reading of the book of Ruth.
My student, Betsy Peters, emailed me some questions about Ruth. (Note from 2011: Miss Peters, now Mrs. Zachary Howard, graduated as the 2010 Hillsdale College valedictorian with a thesis on the book of Ruth. She is no longer a student of mine, but is a colleague at Mars Hill Academy.) Some of her questions I was able to answer. For others, I forwarded her the following bit by David Daube. Regular readers of this blog will know that I admire Daube’s scholarship, perhaps to an extreme. He has changed my understanding of an incredible number of Bible passages. His solutions are elegant and utterly persuasive to me, more than any other scholar I have ever read.

He just did the same to me for the book of Ruth. As so often, he zeroes in on the verses that are widely mistranslated and emended. Such fudging usually indicates misunderstanding. In the case of Ruth, Daube demonstrates that the misunderstanding extends to the whole book’s plot, with disastrous results. And I see little evidence that Daube’s explanation has made its way into Christian scholarship: the NET Bible still butchers the crucial verse 4:5, and shows no awareness of Daube.

I excerpt the most important sections of the article in the “read more” continuation of this blog entry. Enjoy having your understanding of Ruth changed forever. Boaz turns out to be an even more impressive man than you might have thought.

[From Collected Works of David Daube vol. II, p. 489-496]
Naomi, back at Bethlehem, is in control of what remains of Elimelech’s realm, Ruth and the land… Still, it is a sad existence: apart from the lack of a man, there is so little food that Ruth must procure some by gleaning. Boaz admires the high-minded couple, being particularly taken by Ruth — indeed, he says so to her. Moreoever, he appreciates their need and makes it as easy as possible for them to get enough to eat from his fields. For all that, he is studiously cautious, takes no steps to accomplish a real change in their situation. He first meets Ruth at the beginning of the barley harvest: both it and the wheat harvest go by and he still is just supportive, tender – distant.

What more could he do? A great deal. If an impoverished owner of land has sold it or is about to sell it, his agnatic relations, in order of proximity, have the right, and a moral duty, to “redeem” it, to buy it back or pre-empt it. A clan’s territory ought to be kept intact. Jeremiah, even while imprisoned by the authorities, “redeems” a cousin’s property, even while it is occupied by the Babylonian army. Boaz could put it to Naomi that, should no closer relation come forward, he would be a generous purchaser. However, there is a snag. Under the system prevailing in this epoch, if the land belongs to a childless widow, a “redeemer” must take her to wife and the firstborn will be her original husband’s heir. In these special conditions, “redemption” has strong affinity with levirate [marriage]… At any rate, this is what holds Boaz back: the requirement to marry the dowager. It will soon become apparent that it is not a mere matter of carnal appetites – though I am the last person to pooh-pooh them.

Naomi has made up her mind that he would be the ideal protector. She is aware of his ground of hesitation. She also knows how to interpret his dealings with Ruth, reticent and tactful as they are. She decides to show him a way out of the impasse. She sends him Ruth, attired as for a wedding. He gets the message: he can do his duty by Naomi by taking charge of Ruth – who is very willing to fall in with the plan. At this juncture, there commences a phantasmagoria which will go on right to the finish, a series of scenes with the parties appearing in different masks and each mask itself being ambivalent. It is not, however, a play but a real-life struggle for high stakes. For the moment let us recall that Judah did his duty by Tamar, the respectable widow, by having intercourse with Tamar, posing – masked in the literal sense – as a whore. She thus, basically, acted both roles, of Naomi and of Ruth, at the same time…

Boaz is now galvanized into action. He indicates to Naomi that he understands: while retaining Ruth as his bedfellow throughout the night – although without sexual commerce – in the morning he bids her take a bridal present, the Morgengabe, pretium pudicitiae, to Naomi. In strict law, it is she who has been with him, as whose “redeemer” he proceeds. The same day he sets out to tackle his potential rival, and the ingenuity by dint of which he eliminates him proves him worthy of being Naomi’s choice. Before a quorum of elders, he asks him whether he wishes to “redeem,” purchase, Elimelech’s land, up for sale; otherwise he, Boaz, will do so. The first answer, plainly anticipated, is yes. Then he goes on: “What day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you have bought the wife of the dead to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.” The childless widow is part of the estate; and immediately the answer turns into no. The point is that Boaz, though by now he knows better, formulates in such a way that the other one can envisage only marriage with Naomi. Literally, “the wife of the dead” may describe either her or Ruth, both being childless widows; and this is of no small moment since Boaz must not be guilty of a straight falsehood. But as the phrase occurs in a statement about Elimelech’s land, anyone trusting fair play is bound to think of Naomi. Boaz himself had been alerted to the possibility of a substitution only the night before. We have to do with a mode of deception familiar from the Jacob cycle, for instance.

The transaction is not so comprehended by most scholars that they revise the text in order to get rid of the ambiguity: “what day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you have bought Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead.” Ruining everything – like many an emendation. It destroys the artful web woven by the three heroes in cooperation; it represents Boaz as leaving the outcome entirely to chance, or worse, to his opponent’s discretion; and it makes the latter’s emphatic refusal most uncomplimentary to Ruth… On no account should we tamper with the deliberately misleading concentration on marriage with Naomi. The dangerous candidate withdraws because that is not what he wants – just as Boaz had not wanted it.

All this is illumined by the reason he gives, “lest I spoil my own inheritance.” No passage in this work has produced more headaches. How could “redemption” marriage – whether or not Naomi or with Ruth – interfere with his own patrimony? The firstborn would obtain Elimelech’s, but nothing else, nothing from his physical begetter. What does he fear? Commentators mostly resort to evasion. The very replacement of the forceful “to spoil,” “to destroy,” “to wipe out,” by a vague “to mar” in English versions is revealing. Well, the explanation is that he has Naomi in mind, unlikely to have any more children. So for a few years’ enjoyment of Elimelech’s riches, he would leave his own heirless. But could he not marry a younger woman in addition? No. It is evidently assumed that he cannot. Which means either that the events take place in an interregnum of monogamy – not unimaginable – or, at least, that where it is your duty to see the revival of a dead relation’s name, you may not take another wife before you have satisfied it. Near Eastern documents offer several cases in which no second wife is allowed; and Jacob binds himself by treaty to refrain from further conquests. Considering that both Tamar’s story and an extensive regulation in Deuteronomy dwell on the faithlessness of levirs, it will not be surprising if the law debars a “redeemer” of a childless widow’s estate from similar conduct. The temptation to play false would be gigantic. It is relevant to note that Deuteronomy itself, while admitting that a delinquent levir may perpetuate his own name, makes the perpetuation worthless: the name will be stained for ever.

Boaz, I maintained above, was unenthusiastic about marriage with naomi from motives transcending sex-appeal. It can now be said that he, too, dreaded the extinction of his own name. This does not, it should be stressed, put him on the same level: his sustained solicitude for the two returnees testifies to his dependable, unselfish side. Again, I hinted at a specific object of his in not permitting Ruth’s nocturnal call to transpire. This also is now clear. Had it become known, his competitor might well have sensed that a stratagem was afoot, perhaps even guessed its drift. As it is, he is thoroughly fooled. It should be observed, however, that even when he has expressed his disinterest, the circumspect, steady Boaz does not immediately come out with the truth. If he did that, the other one would change his mind and, especially since he has been tricked, would have little difficulty in getting an informal refusal held void. Hence Boaz calmly waits till the surrender of title is ratified by a solemnity that puts it above any attack, renders it absolute, “confirms” it. (Jacob’s extraction of an oath after Esau has already informally ceded his birthright is analogous.) It is only then that he triumphantly announces: “You are witnesses that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s and Qilyon’s and Mahlon’s. Moreover – the climax – Ruth the Moabitess, wife of Mahlon, have I bought to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance.” so Ruth the desirable, thirty-year-old, fertile one is “the wife of the dead” whom the nearer kinsman renounced. Boaz, not at all a passive recipient of good luck, has skilfully carried out the operation the women entrusted to him…

The dazzling alternation of roles goes on. Boaz marries Ruth and the people hope his house will be blessed like that of Pharez, the offspring of Judah and Tamar. Yet when, in due course, they have a son, it is Naomi who receives congratulations on successful “redemption,” who formally takes up the heir and places him in her lap, and whose neighbours exclaim, “there is a son born to Naomi.”… Here we must remind ourselves that several wives of the patriarchs, when unable to conceive, lent female slaves or quasi-slaves of theirs to their husbands, with a view to the progeny being credited to them. It is manifestly this arrangement on which that devised by Naomi is patterned. In legal construction, through Ruth, she is vicariously cohabiting with Boaz. And inevitably, just as in the tales about the patriarchs, there is a constant to and fro between construction and material actuality. The latter prevails in the genealogy appended in the last four verses of the last chapter: Obed here figures as Boaz’s son, not Elimelech’s.


After this original post, I added some further comments in response to questions from readers:
Yeah. OK, here it is in plain English.

What Daube is saying is that your English translations are all mistranslating Ruth 4:5. Instead, here’s the situation:

1. Boaz is at first hesitant to help Naomi, because he knows that the law requires that any redeemer of Elimelech’s land must take the dead man’s widow as his own sole wife. If he were to do this, he would have no children, since Naomi is past childbearing age (as she herself emphatically explains to Ruth and Orpah). Redeeming the land is thus a surefire way to “ruin my own inheritance”, as the rival would-be redeemer notes.

2. Naomi suggests, without using any words, that Boaz could satisfy her needs by marrying Ruth instead. She sends Ruth to Boaz. Boaz gets the hint, and sends back a bridal present to Naomi.

3. When it comes time to do business, Boaz deliberately states the situation to the rival candidate in such terms as to hide the possibility of marrying Ruth instead of Naomi. The rival accordingly assumes that he cannot redeem the land without marrying the post-menopausal Naomi and thus leaving both Elimelech’s and his own inheritance without an heir. He therefore declines to redeem the land. Boaz knows better, but he doesn’t let on until after the whole business has been finalized.

Get it now? I never realized that this trickery was going on. The whole book becomes a much better story now that I see it.

Posted by Matt at 4 : 52 pm on 12 . 14 . 06 A.D.
Matt, thanks for clarifying that for me. I have read and reread Ruth a number of times and I certainly see the point. Daube’s illumination of the duplicity in 4:5 certainly changes the whole plot. And it makes a lot of sense that any decendant of Jacob (the deciever) would own similar characteristics.

But what I don’t understand is, on what basis does Daube decide that 4:5 has been mistranslated? I mean, what should that passage be or say in order to be the most true translation? In other words, how do I know that this spin on the passage isn’t just some brainy idea from daube?

As well, how is the message of this book changed by this altered understanding of the plot? Is this still a book that is mainly about God’s providential care and willingness to accept Gentiles who seek Him? How does our new understanding of Boaz/Ruth shrewd behavior change who God is to us?

Lastly, doesn’t it just peeve you slightly when high minded type scholars (I’m not talking about Daube) depart from the truth of a text in order to throw their own spin on it? Where is their sense of responsibility to Gods truth?

I mean, what about the plain-thinking masses who just want to read the Bible and try to understand who God is and what He is telling us?

Posted by Planter at 11 : 33 am on 12 . 28 . 06 A.D.
Daube is showing how the original text of Ruth 4:5, without emendation, actually makes sense in the narrative. If you know Hebrew, you can check it out for yourself. If you don’t know Hebrew, Daube still offers you some proof: his reading of 4:5 makes sense of everyone’s motivation, explains the public transaction, and accounts for the nighttime interlude at the threshing floor. It solves a whole slew of puzzles: “Why send Ruth at night?” Why does Boaz say, “Take care that no one sees you?” Why does the rival say, “Lest I ruin my own inheritance?” And so on. This is the ring of a true interpretation: it makes sense of the details. Daube is a master of such readings.

Other scholars emended or mistranslated, not because they were trying to read their theology into it, but because they honestly didn’t know how it could possibly make sense.

The shrewdness of the three protagonists is perfectly in keeping with the providence of God and His favor to the Gentiles.

Plain-thinking folk have always depended on Bible scholars to translate and expound the text for them. I’m thankful that there are learned men to do the continual work of exegesis. They are a gift to the church – even when, as Daube, they are unbelievers.

Posted by Matt at 3 : 25 am on 12 . 29 . 06 A.D.
Thanks! Ruth is becoming ever clearer. You and daube have made a piece of scripture come alive for me.

Sort of like learning the world is round instead of flat. The essential truths of God never change and I have faith in Him even when things don’t make sense. But it is so gratifying when things start to jive.

Posted by Planter at 10 : 04 am on 12 . 29 . 06 A.D.
Thank you for your explanation of Boaz’s actions. I agree that this interpretation seems to fit the facts, however, I don’t understand how this deception highlights God’s providence or how it glorifies God in any way. This especially confuses me as the deception was between two Jews, who were both apparently godly covenant men. If it were God’s will for Boaz to marry Ruth, don’t you think that Boaz could have presented this to the first kinsman redeemer, who God surely could have caused to defer to Boaz without all the intrigue and deception? If anything, this seems to be a story of mans failure to understand God’s providence as he acts to secure his desires by his own fleshly means, leaning on “the arm of the flesh”. Ask Abraham, this always results in disaster. And no, you can’t really equate this with the other major case of deception in the OT, Jacob’s deception of Isaac, as Esau voluntarily ceded his firstborn rights with the pottage incident, so that the blessing was “legally” Jacob’s . Still, thought provoking as always.

Posted by Evans at 3 : 13 am on 01 . 05 . 07 A.D.
Daube argues that Esau was in fact operating under a similar misapprehension as to what was in Jacob’s pot. He too was tricked, as he states in Genesis 27:36 (“these two times”). I’m not sure I agree with Daube’s suggestion that the trick consisted in making lentils that looked like a blood broth. But that there was a trick, seems clear.

Posted by Matt at 1 : 33 am on 01 . 19 . 07 A.D.


  1. This is terrific. Thanks for the re-post; missed it the first time.

    “His solutions are elegant and utterly persuasive to me, more than any other scholar I have ever read…This is the ring of a true interpretation: it makes sense of the details. Daube is a master of such readings.” Agree completely. I still can’t figure out why some evangelical hasn’t at least co-opted his work. Maybe you should attempt to edit a critical edition that would bring his insights to a broader Christian audience? You could condense the volumes into a single paperback (like the size of Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God) and then I could afford to own it.

  2. Great!

  3. […] A compelling reading of the book of Ruth […]

  4. […] idols from Laban, Laban’s bride-switcheroo on Jacob, the entire book of Ruth (according to Daube’s interpretation), etc. But often, there is something missing in modern Christian interpretations of […]

  5. […] but the word is חיק, which can mean “lap” as well, and the context, as I have discussed before, clearly calls for Obed to count as Naomi’s son and Elimelech’s heir. I would like to […]

  6. […] I want us to look at another instance of this Exodus motif, in the book of Ruth, which is one of my favorite books of the Bible. From a literary perspective, it shows an economy, a tight-knitness of plot, that is […]

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